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It doesn’t really work like that

One of the key features of neoliberalism is the abandonment of administration.  That is, in the period following the Second World War, there was a growing recognition that economic complexity required a greater degree of economic intervention.  In the UK, for example, it was clear that strategic sectors (without which the war would have been lost) such as railways, steel working and coal mining, had to be maintained despite private corporations being unable to operate them profitably.  And so, the state was obliged to employ people who knew how to get things done.  And crucially, parliament itself was largely comprised of politicians who had worked on the shop floor or had had to meet a wage bill.  Professional politicians were a tiny minority in those days.

Fast forward to today, and parliament is stuffed full of professional gobshites with no experience of operating or managing anything in the real world.  The same goes for full-time government employees, who no longer have public infrastructure to operate, but merely oversee the lavish distribution of corporate welfare.  In between government and the real world is a price-gouging cabal of consultancies, supplemented by tame think-tanks and NGOs, which tell government what to think, and then take large sums of money to (largely fail to) implement policy.  And overseeing the system are the plethora of unaccountable supranational organs like the IMF, World Bank, WHO, WEF, and European Commission, each of which apparently believing that human-made laws can reverse the laws of physics.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the risible net zero policies adopted in Europe and laughed at by the rest of the world.  At the root of the farce is the belief by the self-identifying European leaders that technological progress can continue on an exponential upward curve.  In part, this seems to be based on a misunderstanding of Moore’s Law, which held that the number of circuits on a computer chip would double every two years – which it did… until we ran out of physical space.  In part, it derives from the commercial process of product development in which the technology improves, and prices fall as mass production and economies of scale kick-in.

To the casual observer, it appears that permanent – and possibly infinite – technological improvement is built-in.  Indeed, this belief has provided Big Tech with a kind of get-out-of-jail-free mantra for every time the technology fails (which is increasingly often these days):

  • It is only a prototype
  • It will improve
  • It is inevitable.

It is this kind of thinking which underpins the delusional proposition that we can replace the annual 137,236.67-Terawatt hours of energy we consume from oil, coal and gas, with wind and solar which currently accounts for just 6.5 percent (8,935.84 Terawatt hours) of that.  To do so would require the construction of a Hornsea offshore wind farm (which cost nearly £3bn and took 10 years to build) every day between now and 2050… something which any serious examination of the material costs renders impossible:

The root of the problem is philosophical.  The belief that technology can be permanently improved is simply wrong.  As this Open University course on environmental management explains, technological development follows an “S” curve:

“The S-curve shows the innovation from its slow early beginnings as the technology or process is developed, to an acceleration phase (a steeper line) as it matures and, finally, to its stabilisation over time (the flattening curve), with corresponding increases in performance of the item or organisation using it.  Over time, the technology reaches its technological limit of usefulness or competitive advantage.”

We see this process unfold in the development of steam locomotives from Trevithick’s 1804 prototype to Gresley’s Mallard reaching the 126mph steam record in 1938, or from the 1904 Wright Flyer to the Concorde – the latter also including a “radical” switch from piston to jet engines which might be equated to the switch to lithium-ion in battery technology.  Crucially, these end points are beyond the economic limit – both the Pacific class luxury trains and the Concorde were forms of taxpayer-funded luxury travel that only the wealthy could afford, so that both became politically unsustainable.  Translated into physics, the energy and material cost of further improvement was greater than the returns.

At this point, we may choose to believe that there were a whole series of cheap and easy technological improvements which the best minds employed somehow failed to notice.  And so, far from reaching – and likely exceeding – the economic (i.e., energy and material) limits to improvement, with the right financial incentives, the technologies of the net zero project might be about to undergo a kind of quantum leap which will allow wind turbines to out-power combined cycle gas turbines and electric cars to travel thousands of miles between charges.  But before we bet humanity’s future on this, we might stop to consider that the proposed technologies of the energy transition have been around for a very, very long time.  Benjamin Franklin coined the term “battery” in 1749, although the first recognisable device for storing and discharging electricity was developed by Volta in 1800.  The first electric car was developed by English inventor Thomas Parker in 1884, with the first commercial version developed by German engineer Andreas Flocken in 1888.  The previous year, 1887, saw the development of the first electricity-generating wind turbine by American scientist Charles F. Brush.  (Note also that these were inventions of the late coal-age originating in the three leading economies of the nineteenth century).

The point is that all of the cheap and easy improvements to these technologies – which are central to the “green” project – were discovered and deployed long ago.  Moreover, each have physical limits which are well understood.  So that, no amount of neoliberal techno-fantasising on the part of Herr Schwab and his acolytes nor empty legislation on the part of the Marie Antoinettes in European parliaments is going to achieve that which is only possible in science fiction movies.  To return to that Open University course:

“In radical innovation, the ‘gap’ or discontinuity… conveys the sense of a break from one technology to the other, newer, radical technology.  Thus a radical technology fulfils the same need, but is based on a different knowledge and practice base. An example might be photographic film being largely replaced by digital storage media in digital cameras.  Paradigm paralysis is when an organisation resists the shift to the new idea, process or product. One example is the Kodak photographic company, traditionally a hugely innovative company responsible for the invention of the digital camera, but which continued to prioritise its commitment to film and printing of images despite the digital revolution in camera and media technologies.”

The biggest “radical innovations” though, have tended to follow a shift in primary energy.  Early industrial technology, powered by animals, wind or water were puny compared to the technologies which developed in the steam age.  And these in turn were eclipsed by oil age technologies.  But while innovations – like the digital camera and the lithium-ion battery – of the late oil age are impressive in terms of miniaturisation and resource efficiency, there is little more in the way of improvement to be made.  The same goes for the net zero technologies.  Indeed – as is increasingly evident in the European economies – the consequence of diverting ever more public funds to inefficient and intermittent energy sources is that the wider infrastructure – including Europe’s remaining heavy industry – is falling apart… the reason you’re eating out of a foodbank is because the Green-Industrial Complex ate your lunch.  To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, “the problem with neoliberalism is that it eventually runs out of other people’s money.”

Is there a viable alternative?  Probably not.  The most likely short-term future is that, beginning in the UK and across Europe more generally, we are about to experience a collapse in living standards worse than the Great Depression.  And when this occurs, we will be left with a long list of things which we still know how to do, but which can no longer be done in practice – probably including grid-scale electricity generation.  Globally, we are likely to see an end to the current neoliberal green fantasy in favour of a combination of nuclear (because it is potentially far more energy-dense than fossil fuels) and geoengineering (because preventing sunlight reaching the Earth is the only even vaguely viable means of halting global warming)… and even this – somewhat dystopian – future will have to come out of the BRICS block, because the neoliberal western empire is simply too ossified and dilapidated to change course.

As you made it to the end…

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